News
Missouri DOT considers adding tolls to I-70

By Keith Goble
state legislative editor

Missouri highway officials are proposing to toll Interstate 70 between Kansas City and St. Louis to raise revenue for improvements.

Officials are considering tolls as high as $22.50 for truck drivers and $10 for motorists to cross the state. Round trips would, of course, be double that.

The 250-mile stretch would be dotted by four to six tollbooths between the two metropolitan areas. Money generated from the tolls would be used to rebuild the interstate and expand it to six lanes statewide. I-70 is now four lanes through most of the state.

The job of gaining toll authority won’t be easy. Missouri voters would need to approve any toll plan because it would require amending the state constitution. It also would need state legislative approval. 

Missouri Department of Transportation officials say a toll might be the best way, if not the only way, to pay for adding lanes to the interstate.

Proponents of toll roads have tried for years to make them an option in Missouri, but voters rejected the concept in 1970 and 1992. That’s as far as highway officials have gotten. They’ve asked for tolling authority each of the past three years, but lawmakers have refused to let it advance to the ballot.

In response, MoDOT has tweaked its latest effort to ask for tolling only one road.

The department is considering an “open toll” system in which travelers would only be required to pay when they go through the booth, and not every time they get on and off the interstate.

“The idea is to get the traffic that’s going all the way across the state,” not the local traffic, said Linda Wilson, an agency spokeswoman.

Federal law prohibits enacting tolls on interstates that are now toll-free; however, a state can ask the Federal Highway Administration to toll an interstate as a pilot project. Congress is considering eliminating the restriction in its transportation-spending bill.

Other states eye tolls
Missouri is not the only state looking into the possibility of tolling drivers to finance roadwork.

In Texas, the Metropolitan Mobility Plan mandates all major new road projects and expansions be studied to see whether toll financing is viable.

The rule, approved during the 2003 state legislative session, has resulted in the state’s eight metropolitan areas taking steps to decide on tolls.

So far, project ideas to impose tolls have advanced for the new Texas Highway 121 under construction from the southern end of the 121 Bypass near Coppell to the Dallas North Tollway in Plano and Frisco.

Regional leaders have also approved tolling the planned 11.4-mile extension of Highway 161 through Irving and Grand Prairie.

Road planners, however, put the brakes on a proposal to convert an eight-mile stretch of highway in northwest Harris County into a toll road to fund a northward extension.

Instead, they opted to seek other funding options for Highway 249, the Tomball Parkway, including a mix of free and high-occupancy toll lanes.

The decision to not toll the stretch of road follows a similar conclusion reached in El Paso.

A task force there turned aside a recommendation to toll motorists on I-10 or Loop 375 to pay for road improvements. Instead, the group opted to consider tolling only large trucks on a possible new tollway in far west El Paso County.

The Texas Transportation Commission must approve each project.

Whether Indiana would pursue toll roads anytime soon became somewhat clearer on Election Day. Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan was defeated by Republican challenger Mitch Daniels in the race for the governor’s seat. 

The pair had faced off over the issue of tolling highways in the state.

Daniels said the state shouldn’t rule out the possibility of building the planned I-69 extension as a toll road because the state doesn’t have the money to pay for the project. Kernan called consideration of additional tolls in the state a bad idea and said an I-69 toll would stifle economic development along the Indianapolis-to-Evansville route.

Prior to being elected, Daniels said he also would pursue a larger share of federal highway funds to help pay for the extension, but quipped that only in Indiana is the subject of tolls a novel idea.

“Illinois to our west; Virginia to our east; Texas to our south – states all over America are using tolls and modern no-stop technology to build roads that they couldn’t otherwise build, and build them faster,” he said.

The Colorado Tolling Enterprise Board, part of the state’s Transportation Department, recently completed a feasibility study describing the possibility of adding tolls on a number of highways in the state.

Among the areas where tolls might work, the feasibility analysis said, was the Eisenhower Tunnel on I-70.

Peggy Catlin, deputy executive director of CDOT and acting director of the Colorado Tolling Enterprise, stressed that tolling is only one of several financing options being looked at to pay for road projects linked to the analysis.

Tolls are one option for easing congestion in Utah that drivers could encounter if state lawmakers endorse the recommendation of a legislative planning panel.

The Transportation Planning Task Force, a group of lawmakers examining how the state’s transportation infrastructure can be maintained and improved, voted unanimously to recommend to the full Legislature a handful of methods for “managing lanes.”

In addition to toll roads, other possibilities for managing lanes in the state include reversible lanes, high-occupancy vehicle and high-occupancy toll lanes.

The task force will present this and other recommendations to lawmakers prior to the start of the 2005 legislative session that begins in January.

A Louisiana state lawmaker recently told members of the state’s Transportation Authority that tolls might be the only way to complete the link in the planned I-49 extension from Lafayette to the New Orleans metropolitan area.

The cost of upgrading the 18 miles of roadway from Boutte to Raceland has been estimated at nearly $770 million. There is, however, no money allotted for the project.

Sen. Reggie Dupre, D-Montegut, said he might seek funding in next year’s state budget to determine the feasibility of tolls to help finance the project.

Even if Sen. Dupre gets his way, the state’s top highway official indicated it would be at least two years before any tax or fee hike is sought to pay for road improvements. The agency’s image problems were blamed for the self-imposed delay.

Studies in Minnesota and Virginia to determine whether enough drivers would be willing to access toll roads to justify the expense of construction turned up telling results.

Early study findings found traffic backups in the Twin Cities metropolitan area can be bad – but not bad enough to prompt a lot of drivers to pay to drive on congestion-free toll lanes.

As a result, the optional pay lanes proposed by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty would not pay for themselves, the study found.

In Virginia, some highway advocates have touted tolls as the best hope for getting projects built in the Hampton Roads area. A recently released study on using tolls to pay for major road projects, however, said the region shouldn’t count on building its most sought-after transportation projects with toll money, because too many drivers don’t want to pay the tolls and simply would avoid using the roads once they are completed.

The study found even modest tolls would likely force tens of thousands of commuters away.

Predictions are based on driver behavior in other parts of the country and local observations that show many drivers shun tolls at any opportunity.

The findings likely weren’t a surprise to transportation officials in Ohio. The state’s Turnpike Commission recently implemented procedures to lure trucks back to the tollway there.

The commission’s plan includes an 18-month trial turnpike toll reduction for large trucks beginning by February. The reductions will vary from about 2 percent for Class 4 trucks to 57 percent for Class 9 trucks, to cross the state. For Class 8 trucks, the toll will drop from $42.45 to $31.

The lower tolls are a rollback of the increases that took effect in 1999, leading truck traffic to spill over to smaller roads.

Gov. Bob Taft requested the freight plan for northern Ohio communities where complaints about truck traffic have been on the rise.

The turnpike has also eliminated the split speed limit along the 240-mile toll road and enacted lower diesel prices at all Sunoco service stations along the route. The intent of the changes is to steer truckers off overloaded two-lane roads and back onto the toll road.

Illinois Tollway officials, however, have approved a plan to more than double rates for truckers starting Jan. 1, 2005.

The plan increases the number of hours truckers can receive the off-peak rate and allows the discount during some hours only if they use I-Pass.

From 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., all truckers – paying with cash or I-Pass – will pay the off-peak $3 rate. Additional off-peak hours for truckers using I-Pass will be from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on weekdays, from 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays, and all weekend long. During those additional hours, truckers paying with cash will pay the $4 rate.

All truckers using the toll roads would pay the full $4 from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on weekdays – when the Tollway’s routes are clogged with commuters in the Chicago area.

The toll is charged at each toll plaza a truck passes through. On the Tri-State Tollway, truckers must pass through five.

keith_goble@landlinemag.com

Mark H. Reddig, associate editor, contributed to this article. He may be reached at mark_reddig@landlinemag.com.